South African Military History 


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 102 March/Maart 2013

The open house series was presented by Fred Nel on his and Brenda’s recent visit to the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. Their trip started off in Bloemfontein, where the Free State Branch of the Southern African Arms and Ammunition Collector’s Association had organised their annual re-enactment, this time on the Battle of El Alamein. Accommodation was at ‘Onze Rust’, the farm of former President Steyn. They then travelled to Eshowe where they joined the Natal Branch of the Society on a visit to the sites of the Bambata Uprising which took place in 1906. Fred briefly outlined the causes (largely the imposition of what were perceived to be extra taxes), the course of the events which followed (including armed resistance and a few military actions, most notably at Nkandla and Mome Gorge), and the consequences including some executions and the probable death of Bambata.

Articles on the uprising published in the Military History Journal are to be found in Volumes 8 (1) 21 –31 June 1989 (Ken Gillings); 12 (4) 133 – 137 December 2002 (Ken Gillings); and 13 (5) 162 – 167 June 2006 (Hamish Paterson). All are available on-line.

The curtain raiser was by Richard Tomlinson on the Military History Society cruise to Walvis Bay and the island of St Helena on the MSC Sinfonia in January. Walvis Bay had a 6-inch coastal defence gun battery during World War II, but it is doubtful if anything survives. His talk consequently focused on the island.

St Helena in the South Atlantic is of volcanic origin and is reputed to be the remotest inhabited island on earth. It is of particular military historical interest as the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was confined there by the British after Waterloo, and the island was used to accommodate Boer prisoners.

A comprehensive bus tour was arranged for the 18-member group, stopping first at Deadwood Plain, where British troops guarding Napoleon had camped in 1816. It later became the site of one of the two camps set up in 1900 to accommodate 6 000 Boer prisoners. The only signs of the Boer presence today are the numerous bent trees planted by the captives between the tent rows. Within a short distance is Longwood House, Napoleon’s ‘home’ for most of the six years he spent on the island. Built in the 18th century and renovated for its guest, the house and gardens were bought by France in 1854. They are beautifully maintained and displayed to the public without charge, and manned by well-informed islanders. The house is filled with antique furniture, paintings, prints and memorabilia of Napoleon’s time there and well worth study for more than the half hour allotted by the tour.

From Longwood the tour passed the turn-off to Napoleon’s tomb site until his coffin was exhumed in 1840 and interred in his final resting place at the Hôtel National des Invalides in Paris.

Next visited was the Boer Cemetery where those who died on the island in the early 1900s are buried in serried rows on a steep hillside in a peaceful rural setting, their graves numbered and names recorded on two obelisks at the foot of the slope. This was followed by a visit to the huge Seychelles tortoises in the garden of Plantation House, the official residence of the Governors of St Helena. This is where Sir Hudson Lowe, who was responsible for Napoleon at the time, resided during his term. Afterwards the tour viewed from a distance the other Boer camp site at Broad Bottom.

On the return journey to James Town, the group passed the house allotted to General Piet Cronje and his wife during their confinement in 1900-02, and paused to photograph the two 6-inch BL Mark VII guns facing the sea on the front of Ladder Hill. The guns were emplaced there about 1902, and the splinter shields added in 1942, though they saw no action.

They visited Ladder Hill Fort, an extensive group of Victorian buildings on the cliff top with gun emplacements still in situ but no guns. The Fort was the top station of the famous flight of 700 steps known as Jacob’s Ladder, built as an inclined plane in masonry in 1829 and rebuilt by the Royal Engineers in 1871. This was originally used for hauling goods up and down this steep slope on two reciprocating carts linked by a hawser over a pulley at the top. The steps were added later.

There was insufficient time to explore the historic parts of James Town, but Richard fitted in a brief visit to the Museum (which has a row of old cannon in various stages of restoration placed along an outside wall), and peeped into the courtyard of the 18th century very domestic-looking Castle (a replacement for the original triangular Fort), before heading through the gateway onto the quay. The Cenotaph is located here with a plaque recording the names of a handful of islanders killed in the two World Wars. Another large plaque carries the names of 41 sailors killed when the U-68 put four torpedoes into the RFA Darkdale, at anchor in James Bay, just after midnight on 22nd October 1941, the only enemy action witnessed by the island during the war. The quay is backed by a high masonry wall in front of which stands a substantial embrasured curtain wall with two projecting batteries dating from 1708-34 which, together with the late 18th century dry moat, form the James Town Lines, the town’s seaward defences.

The main lecture, by Ian Copley, was an illustrated presentation on the Battle of Silkaatsnek, 11th July 1900. The following is a brief summary. Full details of the action, including maps, sketches and photographs can be found in:
Copley Ian 1993 ‘The Battle of Silkaatsnek – 11 July 1900’ Military History Journal 9 (3) 87 – 97 (available on-line at )
For the Boer point of view see: Van Warmelo Dietlof 1901 Mijn commando en guerilla commando-levenAmsterdam a Verslys.

‘Silkaats’ is a corruption of Mzilikazi, the name of a Zulu general who fled with his clan from Shaka in the early 1820s. The Nek received its name after a clash at that site between the Trekkers and Mzilikazi’s army in 1838. There are 23 other variations of the name including ‘Nitral’ misread by a telegrapher and then used by Queen Victoria in enquiring after the wounded in the battle.

Silkaatsnek is a U-shaped gap or pass in Magaliesberg, a single long range of hills lying west of Pretoria in an east to west line and rising almost vertically 350m from De Moot a valley running parallel to the south of them. This gap is dominated by a rocky outcrop known as the ‘witkopje’. The road up the pass takes the left or western side by a cutting through the edge of the kopje.

Prior to the battle, in early July, Col. Robert Baden Powell, whose HQ was based at Rietfontein to the west, had stressed that both Silkaatsnek and the nearby Kommandonek should be held, but noted that this would not be easy. He advised reliance on artillery and mobility to cover them. By the 10th July Baden Powell had been ordered west to Rustenburg and the Royal Scots Greys under Col. Alexander with two sections of the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) were ordered to relieve him. The latter had been installed at Rietfontein with a troop of the Greys at Kommando Nek by 8th July, having left two guns and a troop at Silkaatsnek.

On 10th July the Greys remaining at Silkaatsnek were detailed to follow Baden Powell to Rustenburg and to be replaced by 2 Bn. Lincolnshire Regiment, who arrived so late in the afternoon that the Greys needed to stay overnight beneath the kopje ready to depart the next morning. The late arrival meant that Col. Roberts, now commanding, had perhaps an hour to take over from Maj. Scobell of the Greys to appreciate the ground and place his pickets for the night. Scobell had already notified Alexander at Rietfontein of the possibility of an attack by some 1 600 Boers, these having been seen gathering in the area. Alexander had in turn notified Pretoria.

General de la Rey deployed his forces in three groups during the night. It was a brilliant full moon with a clear winter sky, so there was no difficulty in occupying the heights overlooking either side of the kopje with his flanking groups whilst he commanded the centre opposite the kopje in thick bush, having two field guns, two pom-poms and a Maxim gun.

The Boer attack began at first light with rifle shots emanating from the eastern buttress of the pass as the right picket was overrun. The Lincolns were standing to and the Greys were ready to move out during a lull of about eight minutes before cross-fire from the heights erupted. All units were brought in towards the guns and rear of the kopje as the enemy worked round on the British left. The ammunition wagon and horses had furthest to go and fared worst, with several men being killed and wounded. A driver and four horses managed to escape into the bush alongside the stream. The two 12 pounder guns to the right of the kopje were hampered by time and opportunity to serve them: anyone visible above their sanger being shot. The attempt by the Greys to gain the western buttress was forestalled as the Boers had already arrived there, but some progress was made up the pass and by about 10h30 they came under de la Rey’s shell fire. Col. Alexander heard the initial firing and reported the attack to Pretoria.

The Lincolnshires at the foot of the Nek were under fire first from the right and then from the left buttress. At about 09h00 Col. Roberts managed to get a messenger through to say that they were hard pressed and requested a bombardment of the eastern buttress. Although Alexander regarded the position as lost, he allowed his two remaining guns with a line of cavalry to advance a third of the way adding to the fire from the Lincolns. After an hour he was worried about being outflanked by some Boers – mistaking the Lincolnshires’ position for them – and withdrew his forces. At the same time he ordered withdrawal of the Greys at Commando Nek and the Lincolns. By 14h00 some Boers had reached the eastern side of the kopje where the guns were located. This position was overrun by 15h00 in the ‘battle for the guns’ which caused the highest number of Boer casualties. The guns captured by the Boers were then turned on the kopje where the wounded and remnants of the defenders were now marooned, suffering from hunger, thirst and lack of ammunition.

Col. Roberts, himself wounded, decided to surrender owing to the impossibility of withdrawal after dark and with no sign of a relieving force. A white flag was raised at the same time as the Boers were overrunning the camp. After dark Maj. Scobell managed to escape in the confusion and reached Pretoria on foot. A relieving column of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and the remainder of the Lincolns from Pretoria which should have reached the Nek by 15h00, only started out at 14h00. The 500 infantry, 450 mounted infantry and four guns were within a few miles of the Nek when they met the Greys and RHA at about 20h00 and returned with them to Pretoria.

Casualties on the Boer side included 11 killed and eight wounded two of them seriously. One died three weeks later. On the Imperial side the Lincolnshire Regiment lost one officer and sixteen men, four more died either on the way to or in Pretoria. The Greys lost two officers and one trooper and the RHA lost a driver and a gunner: a total of 26 killed and some 56 officers and men wounded. Prisoners taken by the Boers amounted to approximately 190 of all ranks, who were released six weeks later by General French at Nooitgedacht.

At a Court of Inquiry on 14th July Col. Roberts, who was not there to defend himself, was censured by Lord Roberts for ‘failure to adopt ordinary precautions’, whilst Col. Alexander was censured for ‘want of military appreciation of the position’ and for failing to give assistance. A second Battle of Silkaatsnek took place on 2nd August, three weeks later, when some of the lessons learned were put into practice.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 11th March at the usual venue. The AGM will be in lieu of the curtain raiser, followed by the main lecture entitled A dependent’s tale by Barbara Kinghorn. The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the next episode in the ‘World at War’ series, Pacific – the island to Island war (February 1942 – July 1945). The chairman’s and treasurer’s reports for the past year are attached.

The May field trip will be from the 17th – 19th May. It will include sites related to Smuts’ and Kritzinger’s 1901 invasion of the Cape, Scheepers’ activites in 1901 and other points of interest along the way. Places to be visited include Klipplaat, Willowmore and Uniondale. All are welcome. If you are interested contact Malcolm Kinghorn for details (

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

Individual members’ activities

Richard and Jill Tomlinson and Fred and Brenda Nel visited St Helena Island as participants in the tour organised by the Military History Society (see above). Fred and Brenda Nel attended the SAAACA re-enactment in Bloemfontein and joined KwaZulu-Natal branch for their annual field trip. Malcolm Kinghorn has run an anti-piracy course in Mozambique.

: New members

We welcome the following new members to the Society and trust it will be an enjoyable experience for them: Kathleen Gordon, Niccy Kirby, Mike Nell, Terry Pattison, Johan Wagner and Rob Melvill.


SAMHSEC records the passing at the age of 89 of Dr Mary Knowling, one of the last WW II veterans in Grahamstown and probably in the Eastern Cape. Apart from her very substantial social and civil achievements and honours, she served in the South African Coastal Artillery from 1941 to 1945. Coming from a family with a strong military background and service (her uncle, Charles Mullins, won the VC at Elandslaagte), Mary was recruited while still in her matric year and served in the Coastal Batteries on both Robben Island and in Port Elizabeth. She addressed SAMHSEC on these experiences in June 2008.

175ste jaar na die Groot Trek

‘n Skeepskanon uit die 19de eeu met die naam Susanna, was presies om 12h00 op Vrydag, 1 Februarie by Fort Schanskop op die terrein van die Voortrekkermonument afgevuur. Dit was ter viering van die 175ste jaar na die begin van die Groot Trek en is deel van verskeie aksies wat hierdie jaar deur Afrikaanse kultuurorganisasies beplan word. Susanna sal tot einde Desember op elke eerste Vrydag van die maand om 12h00 afgevuur word.

Susanna is tydens opknappings in die sewentigerjare by die Cape Town High School opgegrawe. Die kanon is geïdentifiseer as ‘n sespond-skeepskanon wat dateer uit 1820. Tydens die Groot Trek het baie van die Trekkers van hierdie kanonne met hulle saamgeneem die binneland in.  Afgetrede vlootkommandeur Gerry de Vries, medeskrywer van die boek The Muzzle Loading Cannon of South Africa, het die skool namens die Voortrekkermonument genader wat op soek was na ‘n kanon vir gebruik op spesiale geleenthede.

Die skoolraad het in 2002 besluit om die kanon aan die Voortrekkermonument te skenk, aangesien dit histories by die Monument ‘n tuiste sou vind. Die kanon is in April 2003 deur die Monument in ontvangs geneem nadat personeel by die Monument ‘n kanonwa daarvoor laat bou het. Navrae kan gerig word aan me Geraldine Paulsen by 012 326 6770 of by

  Royal Navy history

Peter Duffell-Canham has drawn our attention to the showing of a series of DVDs on the history of the Royal Navy on successive Mondays at the Algoa Bay Yacht Club. The series will start with Before the Armada on March 4, Before Trafalgar on March 11, WW1 on March 18, and The Modern Navy on March 25, all at 17h45 in the bar. All are welcome to attend.

Notable anniversaries in March /Merkwaardige gedenkdae in Maart

Having been going for a year, this is the last month of notable anniversaries. For the next nine months we will carry brief accounts of some of the military engagements in which the Voortrekkers were involved during the years 1836 – 1848, this year being the 175th anniversary of the start of the Great Trek. In 2014, it is intended to start a series covering aspects of the Great War / World War I.

Mar 1510Don Francisco d’Almeida, Portuguese viceroy of India, stops at Table Bay (then called Saldanha Bay) to collect fresh water. A dispute arises with the local Khoi and the Portuguese are driven back to their ships. In a punitive retaliation, 150 men go ashore and march upon the settlement, and in the battle which follows, D’Almeida, his son, 11 officers and 53 other ranks lose their lives. Khoi losses unknown but given the superiority of Portuguese arms, quite likely much higher.
Mar 1945Wehrmacht in retreat on all fronts despite stubborn and courageous resistance.
2- 4 Mar 1901Battle of Lichtenburg. British successfully defend the town against an attack by General de la Rey.
5 Mar 1945 Cologne falls to the Allies, the first major German city to do so.
5 Mar 1946Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in the USA signals the start of the Cold War.
6 Mar 1881Maj.-Gen. Evelyn Wood and General Piet Joubert meet for negotiations at O’Neill’s Cottage, which leads to the end the Anglo-Transvaal War.
6 Mar 1941 Luftwaffe blocks Suez Canal for 3 weeks with magnetic and acoustic mines.
7 Mar 1900 Battle of Poplar Grove. A delaying action by the Boers as British advance on Bloemfontein.
7 Mar 1902 Battle of De Klipdrift/Tweebosch. General de la Rey inflicts a significant defeat on the British at this late stage of the war. Lord Metheun wounded and captured but returned by de la Rey to the nearest British hospital.
7 Mar 1943 Rommel leaves North Africa for the last time.
7-20 Mar 1916First South African offensive in German East Africa.
8 Mar 1862Battle of Hampton Roads. The first battle between armoured warships in an inconclusive naval engagement during the American Civil War.
8-10 Mar 1917(South African) Captain Oswald Reid, earns VC at Dialah River in Messopotamia.
9 Mar 1816Five rebels, the leaders of the so-called ‘Slagtersnek Rebellion’ are publically hanged by the British Colonial Government, their families being forced to attend. This leaves a long legacy of bitterness and is exploited as a significant event in the early rise of Afrikaner nationalism.
9-10 Mar 1900Battles of Abrahamskraal and Driefontein during Boer retreat to Bloemfontein. A delaying action by the Boers who inflict heavy casualties on the British in their advance on Bloemfontein.
12 Mar 1879Battle of Ntombe River. British detachment camped at the river crossing annihilated in surprise Zulu attack at night. Second largest British defeat in the Anglo-Zulu War.
13 Mar 1851Cape Mounted Riflemen mutiny in King William’s Town (8th Frontier War).
13 Mar 1900 Boers abandon Bloemfontein to the British, retreating northwards. During March the Boer leaders meet at Kroonstad for a Krijgsraad at which they decide to continue the war by means of a guerrilla struggle.
14 Mar 1945 HMSAS Natal, when only four hours out from the builders yard on her maiden voyage, sinks U-714. (There is a Ron Belling painting of this event.)
16 Mar 1846 Ambush of escort and release of Xhosa prisoner outside Fort Beaufort precipitates the 7th Frontier War (The War of the Axe).
17 Mar 1812 Start of siege of Badajoz in the Peninsula War. The rape and pillage following the fall of the city on 7th April remains a permanent blot on the reputation of the British Army. It is in this chaos and mayhem that Harry Smith rescues and meets his future wife, Juana.
21 Mar 1918 Second Battle of the Somme signals the start of the German Spring Offensive. Reinforced by troops from the Eastern Front made available by the collapse of Imperial Russia, the Germans mount a concerted effort to conclude the War before the arrival of US troops.
21-2 Mar 1918 (South African) Lt (A/Capt) Reginald Hayward, MC, earns VC near in France.
23 Mar 1775 American adventurer, Patrick Henry ignites the American Revolution with the words ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ King George III’s army did their best to oblige in terms of the latter part of the request.
23 Mar 1881Siege of Potchefstroom ends with the ‘surrender’ of the British Garrison which had not been made aware that hostilities had ceased.
24 Mar 1941South Africans drive Italians out of Somaliland. On the same day Rommel launches his first offensive against the Allies in North Africa only one month after arriving.
27 Mar 1976 South African withdrawal from Angola at the end of Operation Savannah.
28 Mar 1879 Battle of Hlobane. Zulus defeat British but fail to follow up on their success.
28 Mar 1941 Battle of Cape Matapan. Heavy Italian losses in ships. Coming after Taranto the battle effectively destroyed the power of the Italian Navy in WWII.
13 Mar 1823 HNMS (Haar Nederlandse Majesteitse Schip) Zeepard , a naval corvette wrecked at Sardinia near Port Elizabeth. *
29 Mar 1879 Battle of Kambula. British defeat Zulus in sequel to Hlobane
30 Mar 1881Three month Boer siege of Rustenburg ends with end of Anglo-Transvaal War.
31 Mar 1900 Battle of Sannaspos. General de Wet ambushes the British and obtains a huge supply of stores.
31 Mar 1936Franco’s occupation of Madrid ends Spanish Civil War. There is a legacy of bitterness in Spain to this day.
* This is a particularly interesting shipwreck. Further details may be found in the following issues of Looking Back: 31 (2) (1992) and 14 (1) (1974), and in Malcolm Turner’s Shipwrecks and Salvage in South Africa. There are relics of the wreck in the Bayworld Museum.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

World War II

Warsaw Ghetto: The story of its secret archive
BBC World Service Monica Whitlock 27 January 2013

Interesting photos of Aircraft of WW2 and beyond (RAF, RAAF, RNZAF, RRAF,SAAF)
Original source unknown

The road to uncovering a wartime Colossus
BBC News: Technology Mark Ward 11th February 2013

Vietnam War

Vietnam: Resistance, Regret and Redemption [A different perspective]
Truthout H Patricia Hynes Sunday, 27 January 2013


Afghanistan: When the Moon Sets, Watch Out
Michael Yon Online Magazine September 2012

Images of Afghanistan: October 2012
The Atlantic 2nd November 2012 Alan Taylor

Cyber warfare

Are Russian Hackers Helping the Syrian Government?
Cyber Arms / Computer security D. Dieterle 19 January 2013.


Ten interesting facts of Edinburgh Castle
This site includes a 1½ hour video on the 2011 Edinburgh Tattoo – a magnificent pageant.

Women in war
With the decision of the US government to allow women to be deployed as front-line combat troops, the following article from the January 2013 Small Wars Journal makes interesting, if controversial, reading:

Insurgent warfare

Mao and Now: Evolution in the Art of Insurgency
Small Wars Journal Mehar Omar Khan 1 February 2013

Books and DVDs of military interest/ Boeke en DVDs van militêre belang

Stennett Alan 2012 Lincolnshire lads on the veldt: Letters home from volunteer soldiers in the South African War 1899-1903 Published privately by Alan Stennett, Woodhall Spa, Lincs.

This is a fascinating reflection of Victorian values relating to Queen, country and especially family. It is interesting, not least, because it gives us, in all innocence, examples of Tommy’s attitudes, mainly negative but some positive, towards the Boers, and of Robert’s Army’s plundering and theft from the civilian populations, who at that stage were mainly women, children and old people on the farms. It is also in part a story of two thoroughly decent men and a part time ‘war correspondent’ who, although they saw relatively little action, were caught up in the maelstrom of what was in essence a grossly unjust war. Despite their overt God-fearing views which permeate the text, little brotherly concern is expressed for the equally God-fearing Boers defending their country against the aggressors. Of course to have expected the average British soldier of that time to have felt, never mind expressed such positions, is contextually quite unrealistic.

This short book joins other texts such as Private Tucker’s Boer War Diary (1980) in giving us the Tommy’s experience of that brutal war, although he did not see it that way. This useful addition to the literature of the Anglo-Boer War is well edited and presented. Additions from the Lincolnshire Echo of the time also add considerable value.

Anyone wishing to obtain a copy can contact the author at

Urquhart Alistair 2010 The forgotten Highlander London

Written at the age of 90 by a member of the Gordon Highlanders who was captured at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, this is a deeply moving firsthand account of life as a Japanese prisoner of war. The mainly British and Australian POWS were treated with appalling cruelty and disregard for life while working as slave labour on the Death Railway and the bridges on the River Kwai, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of men by ill treatment, starvation and disease. In addition, thousands of the ‘survivors’ died on the ‘hellships’ transporting them to camps in Japan. The author, one of these individuals survived such a ship being torpedoed to work as a slave labourer near to Nagasaki, and was present when the bomb was dropped on that city. This book above all reflects a triumph of the human spirit, the story a man who survived the war with everything stacked against him, through a combination of willpower, determination and not a little pure luck. This publication is a timely reminder that the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army between 1936 and 1945 should not be forgotten, particularly as that country is yet to acknowledge its major war crimes and innumerable atrocities, never mind apologise for them as has happened in post-war Germany. Well written; once started, this book is compulsive reading even when it is at its emotionally most draining.

Olenka in Kindle format

A record number of people attended the talk by Olenka de Sas Kropiwnicka in Grahamstown last June when she addressed the Society on the Warsaw Uprising, her subsequent incarceration in Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen concentration camps and her forced participation in the Nazi death march. Her book on her wartime experiences, Olenka, is now available in Kindle format.

Uitnodiging na boeke bekendstelling
Die Erfenisstigting, in samewerking met die 61 Meg Inf Bn Gp Militêre Veterane Assosiasie (61 MVA) en die Ebo Trust, nooi almal na die bekendstelling van drie baie saakmakende boeke oor ons onlangse militêre geskiedenis, met spesifieke verwysing na die tydperk 1966 – 1989. Dit vind plaas in die Blikkantien Restaurant op die Voortrekkermonument Erfenisterrein om 15h30 vir 16h00 op Woensdag, 15 Mei 2013. Die boek bekendstelling word doelbewus vir kort voor die jaarlikse herdenkingsdiens by die SAW Muur van Herinnering gereël, sodat dit ‘n goeie aanloop daartoe sal verskaf. Die herdenkingsdiens is geskeduleer vir 09h00 vir 09h40 op Sondag, 26 Mei 2013 en sal waarskynlik weer deur ‘n baie groot getal belangstellendes bygewoon word. Vir verdure besonderhede kontak:

Members are invited to send in to the scribes, short reviews of, or comments on, books, DVDs or any other interesting resources they have come across.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn: -
Scribes: Anne and Pat Irwin
Correspondence to:
Society’s Web address: 

South African Military History Society /